“Bearding” is a slang term describing a conscious attempt by a lesbian or gay man to hide her or his homosexuality from others by appearing to date or marry someone of the opposite sex. The “beard” (or in the case of a man used by a lesbian for the same purpose, the term used in the U.S. is “merkin,” which is a pubic wig, or in the U.K.“frock” (according to the Internet)) is normally witting and participates in the ruse as a favor to the other person or in return for some benefit. Bearding has been around probably forever, but the use of the term “beard” specifically to describe the practice became more widely used in the 1960s. Before then, such relationships, particularly before World War II, were often called “lavender marriages.”
In Hollywood, bearding became almost normalized beginning in the 1920s, when studios began including morality clauses in the contracts they presented actors. In the 1930s and 40s, censors under the Motion Picture Production Code—also known as the Hays Code—kept a so-called “Doom Book” of 117 names of Hollywood figures whose private lives were “contrary to public morals” and therefore should be blackballed from working in Hollywood. Some gay actors and actresses responded by either self-initiating a bearding relationship or having one arranged for them by the studio to which they were contracted.
For example, then-Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson, hearing that Confidential magazine was planning to expose his homosexuality, married his agent’s secretary as a cover in 1955 (she herself is rumored to have been a lesbian). When Hudson dated Lee Garlington from 1962 to 1965, they would go together to red carpet premiers, but each had to bring their own dates to avoid public scrutiny. Hudson was only outed to the public after his death of AID-related complications in 1985. In a 2011 interview with Joy Behar, Betty White implied she occasionally bearded for the flamboyantly gay Liberace. Liberace, who never publicly admitted to being gay, in 1954 announced his engagement to actress Joanne Rio, but they never ended up marrying.
While most people are aware of at least some Hollywood bearding efforts, the public is probably less aware of efforts by lesbians in Hollywood to hide their sexuality than gay men. Although not exactly a “bearding” situation, Rosie O’Donnell’s self-professed infatuation for Tom Cruise in the mid-90s on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” helped mask her homosexuality from the stay at home mom crowd that formed the bulk of her viewership. In 2016, actor Johnathon Schaech discussed in a Reddit interview taking Ellen DeGeneres on dates at the request of their shared manager because Ellen was scared no one would watch her show if it came out that she was lesbian.
Country singer Chely Wright dated fellow singer Brad Paisley in the early 2000s even though she’d just moved in with her female partner partially to use him as a beard and partially because of a belief that she’d have to settle into an unfulfilling heterosexual relationship to fill societal expectations.